The differences between Sabathia and Verlander

The Russell Martin Appreciation Thread
Looking Back. Looking Forward.

He’s the hometown candidate, so we all want him to win. And since he leads AL pitchers in many categories, he has a good chance. But the prevailing narrative seems to shove aside CC Sabathia as a Cy Young Award candidate. Justin Verlander currently owns the spotlight to such a degree that he’s gaining traction in the MVP race, one that is typically exclusive to position players. That would appear to preclude all other candidates from the Cy Young talk. But despite the narrative, Verlander isn’t the hands-down best AL pitcher this season.

A quick look at the AL pitcher leader board should dispel any notion that Verlander has broken away from the pack. Sabathia currently owns a better xFIP, FIP, and WAR than Verlander. In fact, he leads the AL in all three. That suggests that he has fared best in terms of the events over which he has the most control. That doesn’t tell the whole story, but it certainly tells a significant part of it.

It’s when we get to the more traditional stats that Verlander takes the lead. He has 21 wins, two more than CC, and 223 innings, 4.2 more than CC. He has more strikeouts and an ERA 0.60 points lower. These are the numbers that play best with the voters. It’s understandable, then, that Verlander commands most of the Cy Young Award consideration. In a world where ERA, pitcher wins, and strikeout totals rule, Verlander is working on a sweep.

There is also the what have you done for me lately factor. Since August 1st Sabathia has a 4.35 ERA, despite pitching into the eighth and allowing just two runs in the first and last starts in that series. Really, it was just a pair of bad starts: a bad inning against Boston and the five solo homers against Tampa Bay. But they still taints his recent numbers. Verlander, on the other hand, has recorded a win in each of his last nine starts. He’s also been on an absolute tear since Tampa Bay lit him up on May 24th; in those 19 starts he has 1.75 ERA.

Instead of kowtowing to the traditional stats and anointing Verlander, let’s take a closer look at the myriad factors that play into a pitcher’s effectiveness. Maybe then we can look beyond the surface of traditional numbers, and even the computations of advanced numbers, and come up with an actual case for the AL Cy Young Award.

Workload: Both Sabathia and Verlander have made 30 starts this year, but Verlander has thrown 4.2 more innings. That’s a relatively insignificant difference, amounting to half an out per start. Sabathia, however, has faced 36 more batters than Verlander. To put that in perspective, Sabathia has recorded one out for every 1.37 batters faced, while Verlander has recorded one for every 1.28 batters faced. So while they bear a similar workload in terms of total outs, and outs per start, Verlander has been a bit more efficient at retiring hitters.

Strikeouts: While CC has already struck out more hitters this year than in either of his previous two seasons with the Yankees, he still falls a bit behind Verlander. In fact, among the qualified AL starters only Michael Pineda and Brandon Morrow have a better strikeout rate than Verlander. Verlander leads the AL in total strikeouts with 224, while Sabathia is second at 211.

Walks: Sabathia is currently working on his best walk rate since 2008, at 2.10 per nine. Yet Verlander is just a hair better, walking just 1.98 per nine. If we take that a step further and do it as a percentage of batters faced, both have walked 5.7 percent of the batters they’ve faced. Since they’re within two walks of each other, this one is pretty much a wash.

Home Runs: This is where Sabathia shines. He has allowed just 15 homers this year, or 0.62 per nine. (This is even more impressive, considering five were solo shots in the same game.) Verlander has allowed 20 home runs this year, good for a 0.81 per nine rate. Verlander does allow a few more fly balls than Sabathia, but a far greater percentage of them are infield fly balls. But in any case, Sabathia does keep the ball on the ground more, which appears to give him some advantage in limiting home runs. Few have done it better this season.

BABIP: DIPS theory says that a pitcher loses control over a play’s outcome once a ball enters the field of play, but that takes the issue a bit too far. Some pitchers are better than others at inducing poor contact. No pitcher, however, can consistently limit opponents to a .238 BABIP, as Verlander has done this season. But that just makes the accomplishment all the more impressive. It’s not necessarily the defense behind him that makes the difference; the Tigers rank 19th in the majors in defensive efficiency, just one spot ahead of the Yankees. Sabathia, on the other hand, has allowed a .310 BABIP, which is a bit higher than his career .290 mark. That could have something to do with his 23.3 percent line drive rate, which is the second highest among active starters. Then again, that could merely be a batted ball classification issue — Alexi Ogando, who has the highest line drive percentage in the league, has a .270 BABIP.

(The point: BABIP is a complicated issue, and it doesn’t come with any stock implications. Please don’t pretend that a high BABIP equals poor luck and a low one equals good luck.)

Clutch Pitching: While the idea of clutch usually doesn’t provide predictive information, it can enhance context when choosing award winners. Verlander has come through big in high-leverage situations, recording a 1.05 FIP against the 47 batters he’s faced in those situations. Sabathia isn’t far behind, with a 1.45 FIP in high leverage situations. Of course, when a starter faces a high leverage situation it’s typically of his own doing. But that doesn’t make the act of wiggling out any less important.

Runs Allowed: As a value measure, ERA falls a bit short. It debits pitchers only for earned runs, and the rules dictating what is an earned and what is an unearned run are convoluted, to be kind. Simple RA isn’t perfect, either, but at least it doesn’t make pointless delineations. To that end, Verlander has a 2.58 RA, while Sabathia is at 3.30. That’s probably the most significant difference we’ve seen between them yet.

Run Support: Old school types love to cite two things when arguing for a pitcher: his wins total, and his ability to pitch situationally. For instance, Buster Olney gave Verlander credit in a previous start where he allowed a bunch of runs, because his offense staked him to a big lead. Using that logic, and the logic behind pitcher wins, run support should absolutely play a role in Cy Young Award consideration. Sabathia has received six runs of support per game, fourth most in the AL, while Verlander has received just 4.7, 24th most. That does make Verlander’s win total seem more impressive.

Quality of Opponents: (At the restest of commenter MattG.) CC Sabathia has faced opponents who have hit .265/.340/.424 on the season. That .754 opponent OPS is the 11th highest mark in the AL among pitchers with 150 or more innings. The hitters who have faced Verlander have a .263/.327/.412 line on the season, which is 31st in the AL. That is, CC has faced tougher opponents than Verlander. (These numbers, to be clear, are the numbers for hitters against all pitchers.)

Given the criteria laid out above, it does appear that Verlander has the more compelling case for the AL Cy Young Award. It’s not a landslide by any means, even if the prevailing media narrative makes it seem so. In fact, Sabathia and Verlander are close enough at this point that September could end up making a huge difference. It will take some significant movement, since the media has apparently already anointed Verlander. But don’t count out CC. He’s just a monster month away from changing everything.

The Russell Martin Appreciation Thread
Looking Back. Looking Forward.
  • Freddy Garcia’s 86 mph Heat

    While I do think that Verlander has the best chance to win it, the media made it seem like he would win unanimously and then be the unanimous MVP. I never really realized that they were this close. Also, we can’t forget about Jered Weaver.

  • Jesse

    I have two others, one is black (Sabathia), while the other is white (Verlander) and one throws right handed (Verlander), while the other throws left handed (Sabathia).


  • Soam

    Considering the voters mostly care about wins, era, innings and k’s and verlander is likely to sweep those categories, I don’t think CC has a prayer.
    I’d like the award to go to one of our own, but Verlander is deserving, no problems with that.

  • MattG

    Great post Joe, lots of work went into it, thanks. BUT…I am shocked at the lack of mention of the opponent. The whole time I was reading, I was waiting to see the slash line of Sabathia’s avg opponent vs Verlander’s. Maybe you don’t have access to this data?

    • Joe Pawlikowski

      Done just for you, buddy.

      • MattG

        Outstanding! Thank you. A significant plus for Sabathia right there, which, with all the other things not named ‘wins, era and strikeouts,’ all the MSM will certainly ignore.

        • CP

          Joe lists the rankings among AL pitchers with 150+ innings, but the list I had was among MLB pitchers with 100+ innings (only 36 AL pitchers have thrown 150+ innings). Of the 136 pitchers, CC was ranked 39th in quality of batter faced and Verlander ranked 123rd. Interestingly, the third candidate that gets mentioned (Jered Weaver) ranks 130th.

          On a side note, the pitcher to throw at least 100 IP and face the weakest hitters is potential FA target CJ Wilson. I guess that’s what happens when the other teams in your division are the Mariners, A’s and Angels.

  • Jedile

    I just think Verlander should win the Cy young this year. He is just so good. I mean CC is having a great season too, but Verlander has more wins!


    • Jesse

      If I got a nickle for every time I saw a Michael Kay joke on here….

  • Ron Jeremy

    Looks like those classes we took together really helped. I look forward to helping you in the future, and to see more great articles like this one. Very well done.

  • Ed

    Sabathia currently owns a better xFIP, FIP, and WAR than Verlander.

    Those pretty much go together. Fangraphs WAR is basically FIP * Innings * Scale Factor.

    If you look at Baseball Reference’s WAR, which is based off Runs Allowed adjusted for the team’s defensive ratings, you get Verlander’s 7.8 WAR blowing away CC’s 5.8.

    I can’t agree with using FIP to evaluate past performance. It tells you what theoretically should have happened, not what did. If you want to bet on next season, the safer bet is probably that CC will be better. But for this season? I can’t argue with Verlander.

    • CP

      I can’t agree with using FIP to evaluate past performance.

      I disagree. The pitcher has little control over what happens when a ball is put in play. Just because more of them fall in for hits doesn’t necessarily mean the pitcher did a worse job. For example, is a pitcher better if he gives up a screaming line drive down the line that the firstbaseman makes a diving catch on or if he gives up a weak tapper off the end of the bat that goes for an infield hit?

      • MattG

        That’s one side of the coin. The person opposed would argue that the difference between FIP and ERA is due to the pitcher, who did not pitch his best when he needed to the most. Few here (including me) believe in clutch abilities, but none here should deny that players will have clutch seasons, or stretches of seasons, as well as the opposite, due to randomness. Maybe Sabathia made more than his share of bad pitches while men were on base this year, resulting in his ERA outpacing his FIP.

        As a random event, that means nothing in the evaluation of him and his season, but in a close vote for an award, the player that appeared more clutch deserves more credit.

      • KeithK

        Using FIP to measure past performance is akin to using BABIP to measure a hitter’s performance. We don’t discount a hitter’s MVP case because he has a high BABIP, which may or may not be a matter of luck. Why would we do it for pitchers? What matters is results when we’re evaluating past performance. It a guy puts up a 1.00 ERA over the course of a full 200 inning season he’s going to get my Cy Young vote, even if he did it with a 1.75 WHIP, and 6 BB/9 and a 35% line drive rate.

        Advanced metrics are great for predicting future performance and looking for regression. But you don’t need to go there for past performance.

        • CUYanks

          I pretty much agree (though it is still a subject of debate over what is the best barometer of past performance).

          Cy Young should probably be kept a performance award and not a value award, or else the same guy would probably win it many years in a row barring significant improvement/decline.

          Think of the 1960 World Series. The Pirate won it and were outscored 55-27. We wouldn’t retroactively award it to the Yankees even though we know that if we had to predict the series over again, we would surely take the Yankees.

          The fun of baseball awards is they reward a particular playing with getting away with often well-above-career-level performance.

      • Ed

        Just because more of them fall in for hits doesn’t necessarily mean the pitcher did a worse job.

        That’s exactly what it means. The job of a pitcher is to make outs without giving up runs, not to get a good FIP score.

        Remember, it is possible to be a good pitcher and have a bad season or vice versa. Skill level and results, while usually high correlated, are independent.

        For example, is a pitcher better if he gives up a screaming line drive down the line that the firstbaseman makes a diving catch on or if he gives up a weak tapper off the end of the bat that goes for an infield hit?

        I know what you’re getting at, and your point is fine, but none of that is accounted for in FIP. FIP factors in home runs, walks, strikeouts, and innings pitched. That’s it. FIP is basically ignoring 3/4 of the batters a pitcher faces in a season.

        • Joe Pawlikowski

          “The job of a pitcher is to make outs without giving up runs”

          But the fielders behind the pitcher also play a role in this. That’s why FIP isn’t necessarily predictive. It isolates a certain few instances to show how the pitcher fared without his defense. That’s why it should factor into awards discussions.

          • Ed

            But the fielders behind the pitcher also play a role in this.

            That’s why I advocated bWAR over FIP/fWAR. I prefer a stat that attempts to measure the impact of the defense over one that ignores such a huge portion of a pitcher’s work.

  • BK2ATL

    Great article. I think Verlander will win Cy Young very close to unanimously this year. CC is our horse, but he’s had a couple of rough outings that dropped him further from the race. Weaver is still there as well.

    As someone already mentioned, I would like to see the comparison between the level of opponents that have made up their stats. The AL East is simply the toughest division in baseball for a pitcher.

  • Eric

    Great stuff Joe. I noticed you didn’t mention home parks at all and was curious to see if that would influence things at all. By reputation Yankee Stadium is a more hitter-friendly environment than Comerica. However, looking at the park factors, they don’t appear to be so different for runs (1.118 for YS, 1.054 for Comerica), though Yankee stadium is a much more homer-friendly park (1.32 compared to 0.979).

    Given the small difference in park factors, using FIP- wouldn’t favor Sabathia that much (68 versus 72 for Verlander), though his advantage in home run suppression is magnified given the home park he plays in.

    The main difference I could see is competition faced, as it’s possible that CC’s performance is more impressive against the AL East competition than the AL Central. I’m not sure how to find the numbers of his opponents, but if anyone knows how to find that let me know.

    It’s definitely a much closer call than the media is portraying currently, but barring a collapse from Verlander, I don’t really see Sabathia winning it. However, that may not be such an awful thing. Since he may be hitting the market this offseason, winning the Cy could give him leverage to get a few extra million out of the Yankees.

  • Nogomo

    This is a very good post. Verlander could have two bad starts and things could change if CC stays on track but it’s just not realistic to think CC would win it if the lines hold.

    Also, I’d like to chime in that I agree w Jose Bautista and many others that pitchers have the Cy and should be exempt from MVP. I mean, winning the Cy already concedes you’re an MVP, while the latter award, even though technically open to pitchers, clearly should go to players who contribute offensively. Just my opinion. I’d like to see CC get the Cy and Grandy get the MVP!

    Most importantly, I am beginning to have some real hope that this team could bring home the bacon this year! Pitching is indeed a challenge, but this offense may prove unstoppable while the pitching is good enough.

  • Jorge

    I don’t have the Google in front of me, but have any of the pitchers who won the MVP won the Cy Young as well that year?

    Honestly, what Verlander has done has been astonishing. CC’s been out of this world, but the stat being thrown around as to the Tigers being close to .500 when Verlander doesn’t start (pre-Fister as well….love that guy….wish we would have traded for him) really says it all for me. Verlander is the MVP.

    So, if the tendency would be for one pitcher not to sweep both awards, I’d then give CC the Cy Young.

    • Wil Nieves Number 1 Fan

      I believe Newcomb was the first, Clemens was the last. Koufax, Gibson, Fingers, Blue, Eckersley, and McClain in the between. In no particular order.

      • Wil Nieves Number 1 Fan

        And Willie Hernandez.

      •!/Clay_Bellinger Clay Bellinger

        Pretty crazy that Eck won as a reliever and it was only ’92, not like a lifetime ago.

  • Wil Nieves Number 1 Fan

    Josh Hamilton for Cy Young.

  • jon

    im all for CC not wining the cy young

    it will knock a few million off his price tag when the yankees resign him

    •!/Clay_Bellinger Clay Bellinger

      Lol.. it’s gonna be awfully expensive either way.

  • Heisenberg

    Sabathia to the eighth inning! Melky + IPK for Verlander!

  • Monteroisdinero

    Verlander gets it. He has better stuff. CC being 2nd best ain’t too shabby.

  • Rainbow Connection

    Also, CC is VERY fat. Verlander is not.

    • Monteroisdinero

      He was thinner in ST. He has put on alot of weight since March in my opinion.

  • JobaWockeeZ

    Verlander absolutely deserves it. The skills stats have him as the better pitcher. FIP tells you what happens. It’s a better indicator of skill than ERA but SIERA and tERA are better when judging pitcher skill. Verlander’s got a 2.79 SIERA and a 2.96 tERA. CC’s got a 2.92 SIERA and a 3.62 tERA. And no the “he’s t3h horse” argument won’t work because verlander’s been going longer into games as of today.

    • JimIsBored (Jim S)

      No one used the “he’s t3h horse” argument, in fact, as far as innings pitched goes, Verlander has more.

  • JakeTheYank

    I am very biased toward CC but i do realize how good verlander is and i think he should win MVP(Only if Curtis Granderson doesn’t lead the AL in Homers or RBI)But he should not win MVP and Cy Young. If he wins MVP CC should get Cy Young :)

  • Berm

    So we are 3 stars later and all Verlander has done is distance himself even more from Sabathia and the field. Ignoring the standard statistics that define a pitcher still proves Verlander is the Cy Young Winner. Your main basis of support is that Sabathia has faced better Quality of Opponents. However, that is countered with the results of those Opponents vs Verlander and Sabathia. So what if Sabathia’s opponents have a .265 BA, .330 OBP and .425 SLG? That is a whopping .003, .004 pts and .013 pts higher than Verlander’s opponents. Sabathia’s “superior” oppenents batted .251, .300 and .356 against him. Drops of .014, .030 and .069. Verlander on the otherhand had drops of .071, .086 and .097.

    Now you can’t forget intangibles. I think everyone is also forgetting that not only did Verlander throw his 2nd no-hitter of his career this season, but he took 2 more into the 8th. One of those was the classic head to head matchup vs Cy Young contender Weaver. So despite your “rationalization”, if Verlander isn’t unanimous, it’s because some voter figured out a way to justify his favorite even when there is no case for it.